Internet & Tech

Fresh scandal over safety

Didi in crisis after another of its customers is raped and killed by a driver

A Didi Chuxing driver Mr. Liu, 37, rides his electric car on the way for service in Beijing

Didi: two murders in four months

Chinese ride hailing app Didi Chuxing has at least 450 million users and arranges 30 million journeys a day. But the rape and murder of a female passenger by a driver working on its Hitch platform – which pairs drivers and passengers travelling the same route – is prompting the most serious crisis in the company’s brief history.

It is the second killing in less than four months and Didi has scrambled to mount a convincing response, acknowledging that its “ignorance” and “pride” have caused “irreparable pain”.

“Competitive ambition overshadowed our hearts,” lamented one of the statements signed by Didi’s founder Cheng Wei and its president Jean Liu.

Didi began operations in 2012 and has run competitors like Uber off the road in China. It offers a range of services including bookings for registered taxis and premium cars, as well as apps to ride-share with ordinary drivers, including Hitch.

In May a Hitch driver who later committed suicide was judged responsible for the rape and murder of a flight attendant in Zhengzhou (see WiC409). Police are now holding another man in connection with the latest attack on a Ms Zhao from Zhejiang province.

She had arranged to get a lift to the nearby town of Yongjia with a man surnamed Zhong but friends began getting SOS messages saying she had been taken into the mountains. They called Didi to raise the alarm but the company said it would take a couple of hours to find out what was happening.

Later company representatives said they had made contact with the driver, who claimed that he hadn’t managed to pick up Zhao for the trip. Her body was found the next day in a wooded ravine and Zhong has admitted to the attack.

Didi made changes to its protocols after the first murder in May, disconnecting features that allowed drivers to tell each other about their passengers, with some women said to have been tagged as “goddess”, “adorable” or “long legs”.

It also pledged to upgrade its security functions, including confirmation scanning of the faces of drivers (previously the function only kicked in for trips after 10pm).

Zhong passed the facial registration safeguard but was later found to be driving a car with fake number plates. It also emerged that the day before he killed Zhao another passenger had made a complaint against him, saying he had forced her to sit in the front seat, drove along remote roads and tailed her when she got out of the car.

Didi fired two executives on Monday and said it was suspending Hitch indefinitely, after more than a billion trips. It is also setting up a new emergency response service that loops in the police. But netizens were angered by an initial scheme the firm announced to financially compensate the families of future victims. Its critics asked why Didi seemed to be planning for more murders when it should be more focused on prevention.

The state media was furious with the company as well. Xinhua was typical, demanding that Didi stop the “drip, drip of blood” – a headline with resonance because drip, drip is also “di di” in Chinese.

“Despite repeated punishment, there has been recalcitrant behaviour and no change, a reflection of the company’s indifference to safety and social responsibility,” its commentary said.

A statement from the Ministry of Transport was equally damning. “These two vicious incidents that have violated the life and safety of passengers have exposed the gaping operational loopholes of the Didi Chuxing platform,” it fumed. “The Ministry demands that Didi… stops making empty promises and takes concrete steps to ensure passengers’ safety.”

The crisis is likely to hit Didi’s plans to go public in Hong Kong with a mooted IPO valuation of up to $80 billion.

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